The mandate of heaven is not forever

Jon's column introduces the concept of a generational shift and asks whether this election will see a 24-year cycle of politics finally come to an end.

If giving up smoking during election year wasn’t bad enough, then being 47 years old, the same age as John Key and Barack Obama, has proven the greater burden. My singular lack of political ambition when compared to these two illustrious members of my age cohort is reinforced every news cycle, day after day.

There’s no escaping my relative failure. It appears not to be in my destiny to lead entire nations. But, to make a plea for the sympathetic among you, I have never been able to overcome a crippling ambivalence towards rival party brands, and so joined none. The barrier for my ambitions was simply too high.

This leaves me in the position of 18th Century Rear-Admiral Fisher, who solemnly declared, ‘sworn to no party, of no sect am I’.

So instead of trying not to lose an election, as Key is, I’ve been musing over  whether my generational cohort is, right now, at the very cutting edge of political change. Or perhaps, and in celebration of a third 47-year-old politico, National Party deputy Bill English, are we forty-something’s merely the Dipton-end of the Baby Boomers, destined to clean up an uneven inheritance and, if we’re lucky, strike one or two markers of our own before Generation X leaders grasp the future?

Therein also lies what I think is the key contextual question for this year’s general election. Will 2008 herald a generational shift, our first since 1984, and a new cycle of our politics? And if not that, then what?

To some political commentators it would seem we are already on the cusp of change. The words ‘new generation’ are often bandied about when referring to Key. His speeches, too, are littered with if not a ‘fresh’ language then at least endless repudiations of politics past.

Colin James has gone so far as to label we 47-year-olds the spearhead of Generation X, on the basis that half the population is younger than Key and his deputy English, and that their/my political socialisation experiences are markedly different from Helen Clark’s generation.

As tempting as it is to embrace Colin’s analysis, if for no better reason than to trick one’s existential angst out of its Munch-like pall, my generation isn't qualitatively different to that of the prime minister’s. Not when compared with genuine Xers. We are both baby boomers, existing on different parts of its curve. Colin is on safer ground when he suggests we are experiencing a generational transition.

Political generations, particularly their leaders, are subsets of their wider generational cohorts. There can be variation, to be sure, especially with generational leaders, but I can’t see how they’re analytically separated.

The leader and their cohort are all weaves of a larger thread. A political leader can lead generational change if they are bold and skilled enough, or if history forces it upon them and they respond well. Or leaders can recognise and respond to change arising from within the citizenry.

While epoch-defining events differ between Clark’s political cohort and my own–Vietnam, the pill, and counter culture (such as it was here) versus the Springbok Tour, Abba, and not much else–we are linked by something even stronger, something which Generation X assuredly cannot share with us. We traversed both sides of the 1984 transition.

Generation X has only known the post-Douglas freedoms, globalization, and the benefits of the information revolution. That is qualitatively different from those of us who straddled the Muldoon decline, the excitement and promise of change, and then settled in to the grim realities of Lange and Douglas’ new frontier. Freedom imposed costs alongside liberation.

Observing the change from a command economy to a deregulated one; from a pre-to-post treaty phase of (moral) restoration; and from pre-to-post ANZUS foreign policy, we baby boomers straddled two distinct eras of New Zealand.

At a more mundane level, Key will recall the old front-room/back-room split in the dealing rooms of his early days in the currency markets. Paper dockets, not an ‘enter’ key, would have been his lodestar. Likewise in my first office job, we had paper, far too much of it as I recall, but only the most rudimentary of ‘expert’ computer systems to boost our (already uneven) productivity.

My colleagues at Victoria University can recall the absurdity of having to get the Reserve Bank’s permission to use their own cash to buy a textbook from overseas. My students think such stories quaint. Most have only known the age.

Lecturing Generations X and Y reinforces how these rising generations simply have no real experience of New Zealand’s pre-1984 world except their parent’s anger or nostalgia. Clark’s 50-somethings might reach further back, but her cohort shares with Key’s the crucial experiences of our last generational shift.

These thoughts lead back to the context for our 2008 election. A long 24-year cycle of politics, the age of Rogernomics, is drawing to a close. Not that you’d know it. Roger Douglas’s own return to politics is an arch reminder that, for our former Finance Minster at least, there remains unfinished business. And why not? Our politics is still largely employing his dominant language to debate its points and counterpoints.

Over the course of this campaign I intend canvassing the post-election context. In trying to understand the underlying reality and outward manifestations behind slogans about whom to ‘trust,’ or ‘fresh’ directions and ‘new’ beginnings I intend to examine several dimensions underpinning a generational shift.

These include the age and parliamentary socialisation experiences of Clark versus Key and English, any observable ontological and attitudinal differences, the development, or not, of a new language around our politics, emerging perceptual gaps between generations, and the likely policy inheritance facing our next government.

During the campaign I will also be looking for an intangible marker of generational change, what historian Thurston Clark exquisitely described as an ‘imperceptible passing through of an invisible membrane in time that separates one era from another.’

Will the 2008 campaign give us such a moment or is it still some years off? We don’t yet know, but there will be much fun to be had along the way to finding out.